What to do with your digital camera between photographic masterpieces, or talking points for your pitch to buy one

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Last updated July 27, 2004

A Malleable Tool

A move to Colorado in 2001inspired this topic. Our “new” 1927 home needed many small repairs involving countless items from the hardware store, some of which had to be matched to existing fixtures. One morning in the shower (the font of all my best ideas), it occurred to me to take pictures of all the items in need of repair with my trusty old Oly D-340L P&S, take the camera to Home Depot, and view the shots in the store on the LCD to help me

  • Remember exactly what I needed to bring home, and
  • Make the required matches correctly.

It worked like a charm. Shortly thereafter, my wife asked me to replace a faucet. I couldn’t manage the pretzel-like position required to examine the existing hardware by direct inspection, but my digital camera held at arm’s length had no trouble getting a clear look at the rear underside of the sink. The onboard flash provided all the light required. In an instant, the LCD confirmed exactly what I hoped to find: The tools required made this a job for the handyman, not for me.

Truly useful applications like those got me to thinking: There must be a zillion handy things you can do with a digital camera between masterpieces. As it turns out, there are.


Where Else But RPD?

Once I decided to gather other novel uses for digital cameras, the obvious place to start was the newsgroup rec.photo.digital (RPD), where I’ve seen many impressive examples of outside-the-box thinking. I wasn’t disappointed. Responses poured in by the dozens. A few recurring themes emerged, including

Within each category, entries appear roughly in the order received under the contributor’s name or RPD handle. To enhance readability, I’ve taken the liberty of editing a bit here and there, mostly for spelling and grammar. However, the words remain largely those of the RPD denizens who made this article possible.

Many thanks to all who contributed.


Why So Useful?

Why do digital cameras lend themselves so readily to outside-the-box applications? Here are just of few reasons:

  • Unprinted digital shots cost nothing. With no need to justify shots, you can fire off as many as it takes to get the ones you need, as confirmed in the LCD. And if the working images are meant to be viewed on the LCD, you’ll be able to record hundreds of shots on a single 32 MB memory card at the camera’s lowest resolution.
  • Because they’re easy to carry and handle, digital cameras tend to be handy when the need arises.
  • Digital cameras can capture things you can’t see directly because they can be aimed reasonably well at arm’s length via the LCD.
  • Because they produce decent pictures reliably in fully automatic operation, digital cameras make utility imaging quick and easy.
  • Images can be put to work either on the spot or at some other time or place via the LCD without printing. And if you do need to print, you can usually do so at home or at work in a fraction of the time and hassle it takes to get film-based prints in hand.
  • Digital camera output can be fed directly into a computer, the most malleable of all tools. At that point, the uses become limited only by the tools, skill and imagination of the user. Computer-edited utility images can enhance vision and bring what-ifs to life.

Now let’s get on with the show.

Peripheral Memory

Having a hard time keeping track of something really complicated? Need to document lots of details for future reference? Your digital camera makes a dandy peripheral memory for visual data.

Note that the entries here differ from those in the Communication section in that the intended audience is the photographer.


KenJr

When I replaced the carb on my car, there were 22 vacuum lines that needed to be disconnected. I took pictures from every conceivable angle, then proceeded to disconnect everything. The printouts of the carb and engine compartment proved to be invaluable.


Bob Williams

I just recently used it to take pictures of all the components I’ll use in a new computer I am building. I have an image of each device, its brand, model number, revision no., serial number, jumper configuration wiring arrangement socket location etc., etc. A Macro shot of the Mother Board before anything is put on it is extremely helpful in locating tiny jumpers and sockets that eventually disappear in a nest of wires and cables.


Peter McEntyre

I live in Japan and have been hopeless at learning the writing system. Now I take pictures of signs/shops etc that I’ve been looking at for years but still don’t know what they mean. I take the pic, get on the train, pull out my electronic dictionary and look-up the ‘kanji’ and am starting to learn a lot faster now.


David Lutz

A friend of mine is planning a new house and takes photos of EVERYTHING that catches his eye that may be useful in his new house, such as unusual doors, windows, furniture, etc., to discuss with his wife and as an aide memoire!


Redneck Jim

Before I tore apart a 4 barrel QuadraJet Carburator to rebuild, I took pictures from all angles. Some of the parts, like the choke linkage, only go back together a certain way & my memory isn’t what it was in the old days. Gave me a lot more confidence when putting all the small parts back together.

To which KenJr replied,

I’ve also used it for auto repairs…. The pictures in the auto manual never seem to match what my car looks like. Like you, my memory isn’t as good as it used to be.


Dan Campbell

Had to go to my orthopedic surgeon’s office to pick up an electrical stimulation unit to help increase the flexibility in my artificial knee. Part of the visit was a demonstration by sales rep of the exact placement of the eight electrodes for optimum benefit. So I took along my Oly C3030 and took photos of the electrodes exactly as placed by the sales rep. I use that photo as my model whenever I set up…


B. Server

I have found my CP990 very useful for making quick copies of maps, directions, and other details while traveling. Particularly while in places where the language and writing are difficult to interpret (Japan primarily), a quick shot of a small map or the sign on a shot leaves me with a reliable way to save the directions/name/location for later filing or reuse. (There is usually a “neighborhood” map publicly displayed that will show roughly an 8×8 block area or smaller) I went so far as to “copy” several pages from an old guidebook (that I could not take home) in order to record the location of some shops that were of interest but that did not appear in any current reference. A small tripod helps, but is not essential for the images to be useful.


Gary Edstrom

In going through my father’s old photo albums, I always have wished that he had had more pictures of the small back-woods cabin in which he was born and grew up. We only have 7 pictures of it, only 1 of which was taken on the inside. The other 6 pictures all show similar exterior views.

I decided not to let that happen again with my parent’s present home which they have lived in for 35 years now. I had taken pictures in and around the house previously, but the cost of film and processing kept me from doing as many pictures as I really could have.

Now, with my digital camera, I have done an extremely complete photographic survey of the house both inside and out. I have taken over 500 pictures of the place and there is little duplication. … I also did a fairly complete neighborhood survey showing all of our neighbor’s homes from the outside.


Jeremy McCreary

We bought a 4-bike trailer hitch rack for family car trips a while back—the kind that hangs the bikes by their top bars. Unfortunately, 2 of our bikes had 14″ unisex frames with sloping top bars, while the other 2 had adult-sized male frames with level top bars. Getting all 4 bikes on the rack at once with 2 sets of handlebars hanging at wheel level and 2 sets of cranks at upper frame level proved to be an exasperating puzzle. Only one configuration out of many, many possible loading orders and bike orientations turned out to work.

The next time I had to load all 4 bikes, I kicked myself for not having recorded the solution. After a lot of cussing and bike swapping, I managed to recrack the code, at which point I grabbed my camera from the car and shot the loaded bikes from many different angles, taking care to document small but critical  details like pedal arrangements. Viewed via the LCD, those photos made loading up the rack for the drive home a snap. Prints stored with the rack now guide the loading with no more gnashing of teeth.

All the Better To See You With, My Dear

A small, lightweight digital camera can often deliver an immediate look at things your eyes can’t quite reach. The onboard flash usually provides all the light needed. Post-processing can also augment what the eye sees in powerful and useful ways, as Chuck Gadd’s very clever entry attests (no pun intended).


Beth Peace

I really needed to find out the condition of a second story window that’s not accessible from inside (vaulted ceiling). I didn’t want to go up on the roof, but my nephew loves to, so I sent him up with my camera and he took several pictures. I called the contractor that night.

This might qualify more as a novel use of a nephew…

To which Dan Seur replied,

Beth – our local bird watcher club is looking for a good used nephew for taking closeups of nest occupants. Any chance we can work something out? We’ve got everything else we need – cams, macro lenses, milk & cookies or beer & pretzels (depending on the nephew), etc.


Flash

I was able to get some good close ups from the street of a repaired gutter drain four stories up with a 10x zoom. Beats climbing ladders.


Terry Pinnell

My DSC-P1 proved handy when trying to fish out a half-finished box of chocolates that I’d accidentally dropped down behind the back of a kitchen cupboard. (Wasn’t desperate for the chocs, but anticipated they might start to whiff and attract insects.)

Also recovered the precariously balanced mirror that was the first tool I’d tried!


Chuck Gadd

One of my other hobbies is keeping aquariums. There are lots of chemical test kits to analyze the water conditions. Most of these tests involve taking a sample of the tank water, adding chemicals which cause the water to change color, and comparing that color to a chart of different colors and values. Trying to eyeball the difference between the “safe” and “unsafe” values can be tricky.

While doing some tests recently, I couldn’t decide which color on the chart matched my water sample.

I took a digital picture of the test tube and color chart in the same photo. The chart background is pure white, and I held the test tube in front of that white background.

Then I bring the picture into Photo shop.

It’s got a neat feature called “Select ColorRange”. When you do it, you use the eyedropper to click on any spot, and it shows you all the parts of the image that are the same color. It allows you to adjust the “fuzzyness” of the selection, to average slight differences due to the light.

Then I click on the test-tube in the image, and see which spot on the color-chart is the most selected. I’ve compared the results I get there with the results from an electronic meter, and the results are right on.


Verminius Rex

I was viewing the photos of my friend’s trip to Europe on his web page, and there is one picture that he took of himself, captioned “I had just eaten a hotdog, and could not find a mirror to see if I had mustard on my face…”

High technology replaces the common reflective surface.


Jim Landis

I was taking some candidate shots of our family playing cards on Thanksgiving, and my 10 year old nephew reviewed the shots on the monitor to get a glimpse of his opponents cards.


Jeremy McCreary

Lately, I’ve been using my small old digital point-and-shoot to peer into all kinds of hard-to-reach places around our new home. For example, the camera allowed me to inspect the connections at the back of our home theater AV receiver, which can only be pulled out so far now thanks to a couple of pricey DVD cables barely long enough to reach the receiver in its operating position. Now I know that the 30+ cables back there are all well-seated. (What a mare’s nest!)

See also my under-the-sink viewing above.

Visualization

Teamed up with a computer and a powerful post-processing application like PhotoShop or PHOTO-PAINT, your digital camera can bring what-ifs to life.


Jeremy

Went shopping for curtains — couldn’t decide between two different materials, so took photos of them in the store, then cooked up a “fake” shot of the different materials superimposed on an image of our lounge. Not perfect, but it helped!


goodboy

My wife and I are shopping for a new sofa set. She dislikes shopping and doesn’t have the time due to her work schedule. I went to all of the furniture stores and took photos of all the couches that appealed to me and showed them to her at home where we could get an idea of how the colors would look in our room. I wouldn’t have bothered to do that with a film camera.


lhor

I took photos of our kitchen from different angles. I then opened up Photoshop and played around with the wall colors, tile color, cabinet colors, refrigerator, etc. Magic wand selection, hues, color. Saved a lot of leg work and aggravation.

Communication

A picture’s worth a thousand words, especially when it drives home an important point. Need proof or just a clearer way to communicate? It’s just a click away with a digital camera. Whether you deliver the message via the camera’s LCD, an e-mail, a web site or a print in a lunch box, digital output makes it a snap to match the presentation to the situation at hand.

Note that the entries here differ from those in the Peripheral Memory section in that the intended audience is someone other than the photographer.


Bob J.

I have used my digital camera for more unusual things than I can count. Recently I used it to apply for a variance on a workshop I am building that is not within code setbacks. I photographed 20 examples of other garages in my neighborhood that also violated the code to give evidence of community standards for my project. I had evidence in my hands within minutes to take to the planning commission.

I have also taken photos to stores to explain what I need. Recently I installed a wood stove and brought a photo of my fireplace and stove to the pipe store.


David Lutz

Use 1

I live in a block of four apartments (old federation-style house, subdivided) and when it rains heavily, I get leaks and the people downstairs get flooded out. It seems the guttering and downpipes can’t handle the water flow when it rains heavily, resulting in the water flooding into the eave-space of the veranda, and from there to several points along the wall. Water floods down the inside of my front door and from there to the downstairs apartment.

We tried to get the landlord to repair the leaks and overflowing guttering without success. Every time he visited, he said that the guttering was adequate for the job and implied that we were crazy and to stop bothering him.

Of course, he wouldn’t visit DURING a rainstorm, so he never saw the resultant damage.

I took about 50 photos during the last storm and submitted them on CD (complete with autorun slideshow player!) to the estate agent handling the rental property.

Presto! New guttering and downpipes! Problem gone!

Use 2

I also use it to document the state of any rental premises when I move, showing any defects or uncleaned appliances. Inspection reports by the agent are invariably on the lenient side before you move in, but the final inspection is invariably tougher! Photographic evidence works wonders!

Use 3

I take photos of all insured household and equipment items and store them on my website so that there can be no dispute in he event of a claim.


Todd Walker

I have done this as well and recommend highly that everyone do the same. I burned 2 CDs — I keep one here and my parents have the other one. I am shortly going to burn another to keep in the safe deposit box. In the event of fire, flood, etc, it would come in extremely handy.


Slim

My little lad set up his train set in the lounge. When his mum told him to move it back up to his bedroom, we took a picture of the current layout and printed it out as a map for him to re-create it in his bedroom.


Jim Buddenhagen

I used my new CP995 to take of photo of its own UPC code (for my records) before sending the original in for a $100 rebate.


Air

I used a digicam to take a pic of the layout of the accelerator pump for my 1976 Chris Craft carburetors and sent it to a parts guy in Michigan. Cleared up the misunderstanding we had over the phone.


Chris

My 3 year old son refused to open his mouth for the dentist, despite our best attempts at bribery. We took macro shots of the suspect teeth ie, the ones with the big holes, printed them and showed the dentist. They were apparently enough information for him to recommend a general anaesthetic repair job.


Claude Rieth

Like all the young kids, my daughter often gets her face painted in school or on special occasions. It’s always a drama, in the evening, to get her face cleaned. Lots of tears. Now I take a photo of the painting, show it immediately in the LCD, and no more tears to get the face cleaned.


jc

… a friend was visiting some eastern European country where the alphabet is strange and the pronunciation even stranger, and he couldn’t pronounce the name of the street his hotel was on. So when he needed a taxi to take him back to his hotel, he showed the taxi driver the name of the street.

With a digicam, you can take a picture of your hotel and the nearest street sign, as well as any nearby landmarks, and then show those pictures to your taxi driver or to anyone you might need to get directions from, and this would be even better than just having the address on a piece of paper.


Arthur Bond

I was concerned when our pet dog had diarrhoea for two days, so I took a shot of the download(?) and it helped the vet to prescribe an antibiotic for her. It was certainly preferable to taking the original along!


Ladd Morse

I photograph my luggage, trunks, boxes, etc. prior to boarding airplanes; that way if any item fails to arrive at the other end I can use the LCD to show the pictures to the “lost luggage” officials for when they go look thru the stuff in the back that lost it’s tags or whatever.

This procedure really came in handy last summer when a flight I was on was cancelled due to equipment failure. The luggage had already been loaded onto the plane and had to all be taken off. When the ticketing agent was setting us up with a new flight, she had to go into the back room and find all of our luggage in the giant pile of items. Showing her pictures of the individual luggage items was far more informative than “large, kinda green, and has a strap around it”.

She found the luggage right away and we were off to our other flight.

Another, not quite so unusual use, is that of preparing good “housesitting” notes for friends who helps us out when we travel. While I always take them on the tour showing the important utility connections, etc., having a photo with an arrow on it showing exactly which lever must be flipped to re-activate the well pump if it kicks off, or which lever shuts of the gas makes them (and me) much more comfortable that they’ll be able to do the correct thing three weeks later if required.

Additionally, I was once on a business trip and took photos of all sorts of Native American masks that I thought were interesting. Rather than simply select the one I liked best, I took digital photos of all the ones I like and emailed them to her. She picked a couple that were her favorites, and I picked the one I liked best from that lot. Voila: a gift that everyone loved! 🙂


Mark Grebner

I make copies of public documents that are located in out-of-the-way courthouses. My employees and I have shot 1,200,000 frames over the past two years. They aren’t quite as clear as good photocopies, but they’re much cheaper and faster.

Using a portable Xerox copier, we were spending about 20 cents per page, given that it costs $200 per day to put somebody on site – wages and expenses. Using a [digital] camera, we’re down to about 7 cents.


David L. Morel

I am adding a picture with a saying in my son’s lunch box when he goes to school… check some of them here… www.digitalstars.net/cjmlunch.htm

Grab Bag

These interesting offerings included uses that were mixed or otherwise hard to categorize.


Moat

i have a small oly c1 that i carry everywhere. usage (aside from taking photos):

1. keep track of all my receipts (used to keep track of my spending using palm pilot but taking photos is easier)

2. take photos of newspaper (advertisement/events/etc., used to tear them out and keep in the pocket, now no more)

3. some forms at work are difficult to fill, i take photos of them for reference in the future.

4. sometimes i dismantle “stuff” for fun. it’s great to have the photos for reference when i have to install it back

5. sometimes i need to photocopy certain document at odd hours, so i just use the camera with a laser printer (emergency use only, not practical for normal use)

6. photos of business card (easier than keeping the paper copy)


TRR

I’ve used my Canon S100 in macro mode to copy documents of several sizes. No tripod, autoflash. LCD display seems to work pretty good. Beats looking for a copy shop at 2 AM…


Loosecruise

I’ve used my camera numerous times in different ways.

1. Took pics of accident scene and damage to my trailer, which I sent to Insurance Co of the at-fault party, had check 3 days later.

2. Used to remember addresses and phone numbers.

3. Took pics of beveled stained glass pieces and scaled and designed the work on the computer, shaving hours off pattern time.

4. Greeting cards we’ve personalized, using previous photos of the subject and school yearbooks.

5. Rebates. Save pics of upc labels and receipts. Lots ask only for a copy of upc, salvaging the box.

Novel Indeed

These uses truly stand alone.


Slim

Don’t know if you’d wanna use this, but a friend of mine (oh yes, I hear you say) was too embarrassed to go to the doc for treatment of his piles. Instead he used the timer option on his camera and took some pics of his undercarriage and sent them via email to his doc. 3 Days later he received a prescription for Anusol through the mail.

To which kingpin1 replied,

Is he the same bloke who three days later told his doctor that it tasted terrible and for all the good it did, he may as well have shoved it up his bum?


Gary Edstrom

I have always wondered just how much I toss and turn in my sleep at night. Since I live alone, there is nobody I can ask. One night I set up my camera on a tripod pointing at my bed [under AC power]. I set it to take the smallest pictures possible and highest compression: 640×480 8:1 jpeg compression. I also setup [a video camera with] an infrared light to illuminate the room. I set [the still camera] to take 1 picture per minute. There was far more than enough memory to last the whole night.

To my surprise, I turned over FAR less than I had expected. I only counted 3 times during the 8 hour period that I turned over. Another thing that surprised me is that I apparently got up one time during the night to go to the bathroom, but I have no memory of it.

To which Ed replied,

I would like to do the same type of thing to record the wildlife that visits our deck each night.

Things You Can’t Do

Wishful thinking and ingenuity are opposite sides of the same coin. Some of the ideas floated on RPD don’t hold water. Here are some samples.


Heat Imaging with a Digital Camera

Objects need to be near-incandescent to glow in the near IR. You can’t use an IR-sensitive digital camera to photograph heat leaks from your home because air anywhere near room temperature radiates thermal IR at wavelengths far longer than the 700 – 1,100 nm near IR wavelengths digital cameras can detect. Since the same is true of objects anywhere near body temperature, you can use a digital camera as a night-vision device only if you provide IR illumination of the scene. Removing the camera’s internal IR cut filter doesn’t change that. 

Editor’s Note

Compiling this article was a kick. The contributors seemed to enjoy themselves as much as I did. Thanks again to everyone who came to play.

My friend Don Palmer of Travel and Trail Images uses his digital camera to record the birds that visit to his feeders. Don describes his setup and shows some of his results here and here.

Along similar lines, a recent Lego Mindstorms catalog included plans for a bird perch that triggered a digital camera to take the visitor’s picture on touchdown.